Human Exceptionalism

How Media Falsehoods Become Postmodern Reality

Ramesh Ponnuru’s book Party of Death is reviewed in today’s New York Times. The reviewer Jonathan Rauch, predictably, discounts the book, claiming that for people in the middle of the abortion debate, it doesn’t have much to say. I don’t agree with that opinion, as my own review of Ponnuru’s book makes clear.

But our disagreement about the merits of Ponnuru’s book is not what this blog entry is about. I write about Ruach’s review because it is a classic example of the power of media to create an alternative reality by misstating the facts about important stories, which over time, due to the sheer power of repetition, has the effect of literally rewriting history.

Specifically, Rauch presents a fictionalized scenario about the Terri Schiavo case. According to Rauch: “If human life is ‘inviolable,” then why should it matter whether a hopelessly vegetative patient–someone like Terri Schiavo–left instructions not to be fed? Surely, from Ponnuru’s perspective, the doctors caring for her cannot ethically conspire to starve her to death even if she would prefer to die.”

The ethics of this matter definitely need clarifying, but let’s not discuss that for now. What I am interested in here is the material misstatement of fact. Notice how easily the lie slides by–that Terri “left instructions not to be fed.” She did no such thing. Not even Michael Schiavo claimed she said not to give her food and water if she became profoundly brain injured.

At most, she made vague statements, mostly in very casual settings, about not wanting tubes and machines. But if these statements were actually made–remember it was only Michael Schiavo and his family that said so–she made the statements at a time before feeding tubes were being routinely removed from people with profound cognitive impairments. Thus, it was highly unlikely that she ever considered being dehydrated to death. Indeed, the casual statements, if they were made, came before the landmark Cruzan case that opened the floodgates to dehydrating the cognitively impaired. (I trust Rauch and his editors were merely ignorant about this and did not intentionally mislead readers, which ironically, proves my point.)

Such media malpractice is epidemic. And it has led me to the reluctant conclusion that for most of today’s mainstream media, facts don’t matter. What counts is the narrative; the desired story line. In such a postmodernist milieu–as in Schiavo– fiction quickly becomes fact and myth is transformed into history. No wonder respect for journalism is at an all time low.


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